‘The right play at the right time,’ says SCCC theater director Gloria Goodwin
In today’s tumultuous political climate, SCCC Theater Instructor Gloria Goodwin believes the play’s the thing to lift spirits. As her cast puts the final touches on the play “Bleeding Kansas” for its Friday opening, Goodwin says audience members will hear a message from the past that still rings true.
“It’s good to look back and see there have been other stormy political times right here in Kansas,” she said, “and there is hope.”
The play by Kathryn Walat follows a group of five people who live in Kansas Territory as debate intensifies about whether to join the United States as a free or slave state.
“In Kansas, in 1855, people had such big dreams, so many big hopes for their future, and risked so much, and worked so hard to achieve those dreams — and they were really focused on that,” said Goodwin. “And suddenly they found themselves in the middle of a maelstrom of political vitriol, and immovable convictions on both sides, and it escalated to the point of violence.”
“Bleeding Kansas” depicts the lives of homesteaders George and Kitty Clark (played by David Adams and Jessica Malin), a young abolitionist from Boston (Ashley-Marie Miller), Josiah, a young man trying to choose a side (Alex Pierson) and a Missouri ruffian named Red (Brice Brockmann).
“The play actually takes place close to the town of Lecompton, Kansas, which is steeped in history,” Goodwin said. “Farmsteads were burned down, raiders came in, you had to prove what you were, and you didn’t know what to say, whether you should claim to be an abolitionist or pro-slavery … they were dangerous times.
“If you’re a Kansan, this is part of our history, and yours,” Goodwin said.
As happens in real life, the play’s political issues work out most vividly through individual lives.
“We see these human stories, where you might be a farmer, just like my father was a farmer,” said Goodwin, who grew up in Plains. “You put all your hopes and dreams into a little piece of land, you work so hard every day, trying to have enough food to eat and a warm place to stay in the winter — and suddenly these forces are getting in the way of that dream.”
The soil that farmers work literally plays a role in the production.
“We have a unique set, with actual Kansas soil on stage,” said Goodwin. “The dirt is almost a character in this play.”
Staging “Bleeding Kansas” proved to be “an interesting study of what’s going on today, in terms of strong feelings and divided opinions about politics,” Goodwin said. “Every once in a while in America comes this political crossroads, and sometimes, instead of the pendulum swinging one way or the other, it swings both ways wide. There’s pushback when one side sees a particular victory, and sometimes the other side reacts in the extreme, and all those ugly things come out of the woodwork.”
Goodwin noted that both sides of that historical debate drifted into lawlessness. Border ruffians who came across from Missouri to push for slavery “were out-and-out hooligans,” she said. “They carried Bowie knives and stopped people in the middle of the night — they were a marauding group. They stole votes, committed voter fraud.
“And then there were the abolitionists who started out as these bookish, Bible-toting people with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and then escalated to John Brown who in his righteousness invaded the state and burned down houses,” Goodwin said. “Luckily, Kansas ended up on the right side of history with the vote against slavery, but it was at a great cost to some people.”
Given the real-life tension Kansans must navigate as the Presidential election approaches, Goodwin said the play has encouraged her to believe the best about the American system and the people who comprise it.
“Things are turbulent, there’s no question,” said Goodwin. “The play asks the question of the human spirit: Which way will it go? We see a spirit that perhaps isn’t kind, be changed. And that is what I love about this play. It reflects, if we could all sit down and talk, get to know each other as people, we might find some common ground.
“It’s the right play at the right time.”
“Bleeding Kansas” will play at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the SCCC Showcase Theater on campus, 1801 N. Kansas Ave. Tickets are $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and children under 12; SCCC students may pick up free tickets at the Shank Humanities Building office, prior to the performance, by showing an ID. As always, Courtesy Card holders may attend the production free of charge. For more information, or to reserve tickets, call 620-417-1451.